I picked my way gingerly though the rows of young, green wheat as our host, farmer Ahmed Shah*, the Mercy Corps project manager and a few agriculture experts strode ahead across the field. They gathered around our first spot: a hole about two feet deep and one foot across, into which was placed a single branchless stalk with a mass of roots grafted to the bottom. We took turns holding it straight as shovelfuls of dirt were tossed in and cameras flashed.
An almond tree was born!
Ahmed is already well on his way to converting his wheat fields to almond orchards with the help of Mercy Corps' IDEA-NEW project. Wheat is a staple crop that sells for only about 28 cents per kilogram. Today we planted Satarbayi almonds, which are famous in Afghanistan for their high quality and fetch $10 per kilogram at the market.
Making the switch from wheat to almonds is not simple and does not happen quickly, but the bump in income is substantial. It will be two to three years before the new saplings produce almonds, so in the meantime Ahmed will leave his fields in wheat — which has shallow roots — while the deep-rooted almond trees take their time to produce fruit.
For a farmer, trying out a new type of crop can feel like a big gamble, even if the new crop is much higher value. If he plants wheat, Ahmed is familiar with the process and its challenges and risks, though the payout is low. To encourage Ahmed to undertake the risk of switching to a higher value crop, Mercy Corps provided him with 111 free almond saplings — as well as the fertilizer and tools needed to keep them healthy — which greatly reduced the start-up cost of changing over.
In the coming years, Ahmed will shoulder an increasing percentage of the cost of the orchard. In return for receiving free supplies, he has agreed to serve as a lead farmer and to use his farm as a demonstration plot where other farmers can come to see how he has transitioned out of commodity crops, and receive other agricultural technology trainings, such as orchard layout and tree pruning.
IDEA-NEW’s project success is based on the important relationships between lead farmers and those who come to learn at the demonstration plots, as well as on farmers and the suppliers of key inputs, such as fertilizer and seed. In this way, Mercy Corps initial gift of these 111 saplings can be leveraged to improve the capacity of many farmers in the area and strengthen the local market by building demand for high quality agricultural inputs.
Inshallah, in about two and a half years, Ahmed will be making a September harvest of high-value almonds. The almonds can be processed on the farm, where the women of the household will remove the green shells to prepare them for sale. The shells can also be used as feed for livestock, so there is no waste produced. The almonds will be left to dry in Ahmed’s sunny, walled garden and before being sold around Afghanistan and India.
*I’ve changed his name here to maintain his privacy and security.